The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War
By Paul Kennedy. 464 pages.
Random House, 2013. $30.
Reviewed by Jim Lacey
BOOKS LIKE Engineers of Victory have been written before. They have just not been as well done. Paul Kennedy, one of the foremost historians in the world today, perhaps best known for his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Nations, opts not to present a complete history of World War II. Instead, he takes a deep look into five crucial “how to” aspects of the war: how to get convoys safely across the Atlantic, command the air, stop a blitzkrieg, take an enemy shoreline, and defeat the “tyranny of distance” in the Pacific. Each challenge is analyzed in depth and masterfully presented.
Even if you’re an expert on one of these topics, you’ll find rewards in the profound insights of a historian who has spent countless days considering war in all its many aspects. If you’re a generalist in the history of World War II, you’ll find that seemingly every page presents perspective and details that would typically take years of reading in specialized history to uncover.
It came as a surprise to this reviewer—who’s well versed in World War II’s land battles—to discover that Allied escort vessels never tried to steer their charges away from German U-boats; they fought their way through the dreaded wolf packs. As one British commander instructed his ship captains: “Our objective is to kill.…No matter how many convoys we may shepherd through to safety, we shall have failed unless we slaughter U-boats.” This spirit of what Kennedy calls the “vicious offensive,” coupled with technological advances in sub hunting, turned the tide in the Atlantic. By May of 1943 morale on U-boats was so low that the commander of the German U-boat fleet, Admiral Karl Dönitz, sent an extraordinary cable to his captains: “If there is anyone who thinks that combating convoys is no longer possible, he is a weakling and no true U-boat captain.”
One may be fully aware of the North American P-51 Mustang’s pivotal role without realizing how close to oblivion that plane came. As Kennedy points out, official histories of the war note only that production of the P-51 was nearly spiked, almost costing the Allies the services of the war’s best fighter.
But for the curious, Kennedy offers a wonderful retelling of the bureaucratic ineptitude at work. One is left wondering how much longer the Allies could have pressed the strategic bombing offensive in the face of heavy losses if not for the Mustang.
Throughout the book, Kennedy spotlights dozens of instances where dedicated individuals—soldiers, yes, but also civilian engineers and scientists—pressed forward with unconventional, sometimes ridiculed ideas to give the Allied cause precisely what it needed, often just in the nick of time.
In sum, Engineers of Victory is a marvelous book, with fresh insights and delightful peeks behind the scenes. If you’ve always wanted a single readable book that explains how the Allied victory came about, this is for you. Buy it, read it, and then sit back to ponder and even savor what you learned.
Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College and author of Keep From All Thoughtful Men and the forthcoming Moment of Battle.